Elora’s 1930s Chautauqua enjoyed unexpected success

Accounts of Chautauqua performances in Wellington County have been featured several times in this column.

For those readers unfamiliar with those events, the Chautauqua was a travelling attraction, based in upstate New York, that offered a series of 10 or 12 attractions during a week of performances in a small town theatre or church, or even a tent.

The events were organized and advertised by a local group or committee, and the program itself was put together by the Chautauqua organization, which looked after travel arrangements.

The Chautauqua combined entertainment, music and educational elements. Local organizers usually sold tickets for the whole series, and for a while the Chautauqua became a highlight of small town life in both Canada and the United States during the first three decades of the 20th century.

Popularity, though, waned in the late 1920s, with competition from motion pictures and radio. The last of the Chautauquas in Wellington County played in 1930.

The organizing committee in Elora was somewhat reluctant to commit themselves to a Chautauqua series in 1930. Similar events in recent years had barely broken even, and by the spring of 1930, the effects of the Depression were being felt. Nevertheless, the organizers decided to press ahead.

They included the usual figures who involved themselves in Elora’s public life at the time: A.A. Badley of the J.C. Mundell Company, town clerk W.C. Murray, Dick Mills of the Elora Express, and merchants Charley Burt and E.C. Grimes, among others.

As things turned out, arrangements that year were somewhat rushed. The Chautauqua organization advised that they could schedule the Elora series early in the season, four nights between March 3 and 6. Though time was short, the organizers managed to prepare advertising and prepare the Elora Opera House for the performances. The venue was the old Chalmers Presbyterian Church on Henderson Street, which had become a public hall and movie theatre owned by the village when the church disbanded in 1917. The village had to make some minor modifications to accommodate some of the acts for the 1930 Chautauqua.

Some of the organizers feared that the series was being held too early in the season, but those fears turned out to be false. The performances were all well attended. Monday kicked off with a play, The Patsy. The next night was a double bill consisting of a musical performance by the Petrie Quintette and a lecture by Constance Neville-Johns titled The Land of the Kangaroo.

The Wednesday performances included a matinee by the Cutler-Austin Artists, featuring various vocal and instrumental performers. The same artists appeared again in the evening, with a completely different program. It was followed by Dr. Tehyi Hseih, the famous Chinese diplomat, who titled his lecture Inside Light on Present Day China. The series ended the following night with a play, Give and Take.

Those who attended the series considered Dr. Hseih’s lecture the highlight. He had been born to a prominent family during the old regime of China. He was, at the time, a strong supporter of the policies of Sun Yat-Sen, the leader who had been instrumental in the overthrow of the monarchy, and who had died in 1925.

Dr. Hseih was a graduate of Cambridge University, headed the Chinese Trade Bureau for North America, and possessed a notable ability as an orator in English.

He explained the dramatic events in China over the previous decade and encouraged goodwill toward the new regime. He described the rapid changes taking place in China to bring the society and economy into the 20th century.

The audience was impressed with Hsieh’s command of English and his ability to explain the rapid changes in his country. He restricted his remarks to about an hour, but the audience wanted more, and gave him a prolonged ovation.

A special part of the 1930 Chautauqua was a banquet put on by Ying Law, proprietor of Ying’s Restaurant, a fixture on Elora’s Geddes Street from the 1920s until the 1970s.

Ying, who operated the restaurant in 1930 with his brother, invited Dr. Hseih and about 25 prominent local residents to a feast of Chinese food after Hseih’s lecture.

The guests included three of the local ministers, a few out-of-town visitors, and local notables and Chautauqua supporters such as T.E. Bissell, Elwood Davidson, E.C. Grimes, Art Badley, Dick Mills, T.C. Wardley, Charley Burt, and the Duncan brothers.

It was a genuine Chinese feast, not the faux “Chinese-Canadian” items that peppered the regular menu. The guests had to eat with chopsticks, and sample dishes that most of them had not previously tasted. Eating with chopsticks proved to be a challenge for most of the guests.

After the ample meal the diners settled down for an evening of speeches. Reeve Udney Richardson was originally to have been chairman for the evening, but he was unavoidably absent. Elwood Davidson filled in admirably, with clever and amusing remarks as he introduced the various speakers.

Dr. Hseih then took charge of the proceedings. He refused to make a formal presentation. Instead, he answered questions from those present, and provided much information on modern China.

Hseih captivated the group with his remarks, and all listened intently, and wished him every success in spreading his message across North America.

There was also much praise for the hospitality provided by the Law brothers. It was 2am when the last stragglers bade Dr. Hseih goodbye. The evening long lingered in the memories of those present. It was an unanticipated part of Elora’s 1930 Chautauqua.

Hseih’s career as a spokesman for China and as an orator was a long one. He lived until 1972. By then he was best known for memorable phrases and pithy remarks, which were collected in several published volumes.

The week following the Elora 1930 Chautauqua the committee met to consider the financial results. Charley Burt chaired that meeting and E.C. Grimes presented the financial statements. The series generated $776 in series tickets and single-performance admissions. The performers from the Chautauqua organization cost $497, with a surcharge of $77 due to larger than expected audiences. Hall rent was $32, and advertising came to about $25. The series generated a profit of $76, to the delight of the committee.

The rest of the evening devolved into a discussion of what to do with the surplus. In the end the committee decided to divide the money, with half going toward improvement and beautification of the area around the cenotaph and in front of the old Town Hall. The other half went to the Elora Public Library, to be added to the acquisition budget for more books and magazines.

As events turned out, this was the last Chautauqua to be held in Elora. It was a fitting way to end, with a well received program, a surprise banquet for a distinguished guest  and a gratifying profit.

By 1930 the Chautauqua itself was in decline, though it continued with a reduced roster of acts and venues, and increasingly featured entertainment rather than educational attractions.

There has been something of a revival in recent years, but it is now based entirely at the old headquarters in Chautauqua, New York. The travelling shows are part of our local history, as well as that of North America as a whole.


Stephen Thorning